The life and death of an elusive rebel, a ruthless tactician who lived for the cause, and killed and died for it.
During the past five years, two militants left a deep imprint on the fabric of Kashmir insurgency—Burhan Wani and Qayoom Najar. They could be placed at two extremities of Kashmir militancy’s spectrum. Burhan made the militancy conspicuous, and popular, by posting on social media sites pictures and videos of his small band of militants in orchards, sparse forests and people’s homes. In these images and videos, the militants were defiant, smiling, as if laughing at the mighty military and police structures. No wonder, his death triggered an uprising like no other. Qayoom, on the other hand, had left no image of his behind. In fact, the grapevine has it that when the police went to the School Board in the hope of retrieving a picture of his from his class 10 examination form, they were shocked to find it had been scratched off. Qayoom had walked out of military cordons like an unsuspicious civilian. Stealth was his forte and the secret of his long life as a militant in a place where a newly recruited militant is considered lucky if he stays alive for a year. And when he was shot dead in a garrison area, it took the forces a few hours to realise they had killed one of the most wanted militants in Kashmir.
Soyat is the Kashmiri word for the wick of an oil lamp. In militancy’s own lexicography, a soyat was the one who had not crossed the dangerous Line of the Control and received arms training in Pakistan administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-trained militant naturally towered above the soyat in hierarchy and prestige. Qayoom started as a soyat for the Muslim Janbaz Force, a pro-Pakistan militant outfit that had a sizeable number of militants in northern areas of the Valley in the early 90s. The outfit gained prominence after its cadre kidnapped Swedish nationals Jan-Ole Loman and Johan Jansson on 31 March 1991 “to pressurise” New Delhi into allowing the Amnesty International and the United Nations to investigate atrocities in Kashmir.
Like a typical soyat in the nineties, Qayoom had not been handed a gun yet but he would nevertheless perform important guerrilla tasks such as mapping troop deployment and informing on troops’ patrol. Qayoom became a boy sensation—he was 16 in 1993—for outwitting the forces during cordon and search operations.
“He didn’t need to cross the border for arms training. He was a born guerrilla. Since he was proactive he was ahead of the game,” said Qayoom’s cousin Naseer Ahmad Qasmi.
Soon, Qayoom was to acquire an important appendage of a militant: an alias. He had many—Wazeer, Chacha, Janshab and Abid.
Sopore, soon after the insurgency erupted in 1990, was so rebellious that its inhabitants actually believed that it had been liberated. Therefore, the counterinsurgency operations of the government forces were more ruthless here. The people were at war with the state and vice versa.
The main market in the town, which has earned the sobriquet of Apple Town for its high apple production and Chotta London for its relative affluence, was burnt several times by the forces. During one such arson-cum-carnage on 6 January 1993, the Border Security Force killed more than 50 people. Some of them burnt to death inside shops whose shutters they had downed to escape the bullets and rampaging troopers. Several ‘martyrs graveyards’ were established to accommodate a steady stream of the dead.
Before the January massacre, local residents talk about hearing former BSF chief Prakash Singh telling his men on 9 December 1993, in presence of the media, “What kind of Punjabis are you? How many necks have you broken?”
A trooper had responded: “Sir, I caught and killed two.” Singh had smiled and patted the trooper on his shoulder and asked others to emulate him.
A couple of Qayoom’s friends, who spoke to Kashmir Newsline, quoted a few examples of what Sopore was like in the 90s.
“So much was happening in Sopore before forces declared it ‘militancy-free’ in 1994. BSF knew that the only way to tame Sopore was through bullets. I remember how they shot dead two women including a pregnant lady in Oct 1992 during a demonstration protesting the killing of three boatmen. In April 1993, six students were killed for protesting against the telecast of a blasphemous serial, Bible Ki Kahaniyan,” said a friend of Qayoom’s.
“All these events would disturb us but only Qayoom would pledge to fight the oppression,” he said.
As Qayoom was getting entrenched in the militancy, a police team led by Munir Khan, then Superintendent of Police (operations) of Baramulla district, arrested him. Khan is the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir currently.
Torture and illness in prison had virtually reduced Qayoom to crawling. He couldn’t walk. His brothers recall carrying him on their shoulders on his release after yearlong detention.
“After his release he turned down a job with the Food Corporation of India. I think he had made his choice in the jail where he had all the time to think,” Bashir Najar, Qayoom’s younger brother, told Kashmir Newsline at his home in Mamkak, Batapora locality in Sopore.
A devout Muslim, Qayoom prayed regularly. He was a follower of the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith school of thought. However, what appears like an idiosyncrasy for a youth like him, Qayoom developed a passion for pigeon fancying and built a wooden loft atop the roof of his rundown house for the birds. The pastime is looked down upon in Kashmir society and many call it un-Islamic.
However, mindful of his family’s economic situation, Najar, who had a diploma from an Industrial Training Institute in electrical trade, contributed towards the family income by making electrical transformers and occasionally fixing wiring and fittings in people’s homes. He also taught his younger siblings the skills, although his work suffered because of frequent pain caused by spinal disc injury he acquired during custodial torture. He also started having asthma attacks.
Qayoom was the second of the six children—five brothers and a sister.
Given his devotion to work, and pigeon fancying, Qayoom seemed destined for a normal life: work, marriage, kids. But the siblings noticed something mysterious. Although an obedient son and a hard worker, he would simply refuse to do any work on some days. Soon, it dawned upon the siblings that Qayoom had reserved such days for action, which in the lexicon of the early militancy meant firing and throwing grenades at the forces.
At times, Bashir said, Qayoom would vanish during night and return by early morning.
“Only after some time did we realise why he had connected his room to the fence by a wooden plank. He would walk over the makeshift bridge and jump the fence while we were asleep,” Bashir said.
Through these stealthy actions, Qayoom was trying to reclaim the ground the militants had lost in the town, which had been made their turf by such legendary militants as Abdul Majid Dar, Akbar Bhai and Ibn-e-Masood. After the January 1993 carnage, Sopore was believed to be remote-controlled directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. A governor then ruled Kashmir.
Addressing Geelani, the outfit urged him to probe the role of some of his organisation’s members in the killing of four militants: Islamabad’s Javaid Salafi, Palhallan’s Hilal Molvi, Pulwama’s Adil and Zainageer’s Rashid.
By the time the state intelligence apparatus got a whiff of who was behind the militant activities, Qayoom had activated sleeper cells and infused a new life in the insurgency.
A dyed-in-wool guerrilla, Qayoom is also remembered for his soft side. In the early 2000, he accompanied an ill neighbour to a hospital in Srinagar and donated him blood. He had a reputation for donating blood.
The same day, a man who had been hit by a bullet, and lost blood en route, was brought to the hospital.
“Without a second thought, Qayoom donated blood again,” said Bashir.
Bashir recalls that a few days before the hospital trip, Qayoom had a heated argument with a girl, a neighbour. Qayoom had requested all immediate neighbours not to dust their flooring or clothes near his home because one of his younger brothers suffered from asthma.
“The girl was adamant and Qayoom slapped her in rage. But he felt miserable afterwards and to atone for his act he tendered an apology to the girl from the mosque,” Bashir said.
A fortnight after the incident, a group of BSF troopers came to Mamkak and asked a youth where Qayoom Najar lived. He obliged and then disappeared from the scene. He was Qayoom Najar himself.
Before his flight, Qayoom had pulled down the pigeon loft and gifted the birds, costing about Rs 80,000, to a neighbour who shared his passion.
Less than a month later, the BSF returned and scoured the house for hours.
“As they were about to leave, they mistook my youngest brother hiding on the roof as Qayoom and began celebrating until the reality dawned upon them. They left dejected,” Bashir said.
The forces had been tipped off that a house with a pigeon loft was where the man they were searching for lived. But Qayoom seemed to have anticipated the raid and dismantled the loft. In Mamkak that day, however, all pigeon fanciers became the targets.
After Qayoom went into hiding, forces’ raids on his home became frequent. The family of eight dispersed. The kin who sheltered his siblings were ordered to throw them out. People were warned of dire consequences if they accommodated Qayoom’s family members. Many a time, his mother Hajra Begum spent nights on mosque stairways or people’s sheds. Being on the run took a toll on her legs. She walks with a limp now.
Instead of subduing Qayoom, the persecution of his family seemed to have only emboldened him. He was believed to be behind an attack on Sopore Superintendent of Police’s residence and the killing of a policeman in Baramulla.
Imtiyaz Hussain was sent as a police officer to Sopore after 2005. He soon realised that he was up against a formidable opponent. It took him a while to join the unrelated dots and read the scattered pattern—as Najar would hardly leave any—to profile Qayoom.
“One of the first things we learned about him was that he wouldn’t make militancy a cakewalk for any youth aspiring to become a militant,” said Hussain, who is the Senior Superintendent of Police Baramulla district.
“In my seventeen years of police service, I haven’t come across such a militant. He wouldn’t trust you easily. He would throw you out for a small mistake,” he added.
These were the qualities that probably made it extremely difficult for intelligence agencies to infiltrate his group. This also helped him survive the longest, outliving some of the giants in his ranks.
Apart from reactivating Sopore’s rebels, Najar had fostered a wide network of over-ground workers in central areas of Kashmir. His faceless identity gave him an advantage over the forces, enabling him to move freely in the Valley and even in Jammu region.
On 25 December 2013, a high alert was declared in entire Jammu. Before people could make a sense of what the alert was about, police and intelligence agencies cordoned off Jewel Chowk. The input was that Qayoom was in the city on “some mission”. It was no usual piece of wayward intelligence that the Intelligence Bureau keeps broadcasting every now and then.
Actually, one Bashir Ahmad of Tral had been detained by the agencies. His fake driving licence had been used as identity card by Qayoom to sneak into the city. Bashir was released after the police learnt that he was in Jammu to visit an ailing relative. At the same time, hunt for Qayoom was intensified. The police had hastily made a sketch of his and raided some 18 hotels. But in vain!
The Jammu episode happened around the time the IB had sent out signals that Pakistan was “desperate to repeat” the September 2013 type fidayeen attack in which 12 persons, including a Lieutenant Colonel had died in Kathua and Samba districts. That fidayeen offensive had occurred in Jammu after a gap of about 10 years. Qayoom’s entry into Jammu was therefore seen as Hizbul Mujahideen’s attempt to reactivate the outfit there.
There might be truth to his Jammu mission, but his guerrilla instincts were the most active in the northern Kashmir, whose geography he knew like the back of his hand. The huge network of sympathisers made it easy for him to strike and then lie low for some time before another strike.
As SP Sopore, it took Imtiyaz Hussain a while to uncover the brain behind blasts rocking the town. Most of the militant actions would be attributed to and claimed by Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Abdullah Uni.
“Then one day, an IED went off and killed a police officer,” Hussain said. Although Uni claimed the responsibility, it was Qayoom who blinked on intelligence radar.
“Only he was adept at handling electrical devices and wiring. He was an IED expert. For us, he was the man,” said Hussain.
A fortnight after the incident, a group of BSF troopers came to Mamkak and asked a youth where Qayoom Najar lived. He obliged and then disappeared from the scene. He was Qayoom Najar himself.
“In the history of Kashmir insurgency,” said a sleuth in Sopore, who tried to distribute SIM cards among his network of informers to track Qayoom down, “Najar would always be remembered for his ability to think ahead of us. It amazes me how a person of little education could outfox intelligence agencies for over 12 years.”
In a place that is like a panopticon where hardly anything escapes the gaze of the state, Qayoom had effectively effaced his identity by leaving no footprints, digital or physical, behind. Until one day, when the police accidentally got hold of a faded I-card in which Qayoom wore the guise of a forest guard.
On 3 Aug 2015, a police team intercepted a vehicle at Mirgund Srinagar. Inside sat Qayoom with his deputy, Tariq Mir of Mawar, who was described in police records as a “ruthless militant”, on the wheels. After opening fire, the duo jumped into a river canal. While Qayoom swam to the shore, Tariq drowned. His body was fished out hours later. Inside the car, the cops found an identity card of a forest guide.
“For the first time in years we were looking at the man who had kept all of us on the toes,” said SSP Hussain.
Before the police stumbled upon the ID, a sketch drawn after looking at Qayoom’s balding sibling’s picture was the only visual identifying mark with the police.
Qayoom still remained elusive but the hunt to track him down became intense.
In the summer of 2015, after his miraculous escape at Mirgund, dozens of soldiers and policemen surrounded Delina village in Baramulla. Qayoom walked out like a civilian once again, which led many police officers to believe that he was changing his appearance by wearing wigs.
He would travel in public transport vehicles like a commoner. He would go from one place to the other during morning hours, unlike other militants who preferred night hours for movement. He would skip main roads. He would destroy a mobile phone after making a call and pay the owner its cost.
Recently, the police found that six laptops seized by them during raids had been used by Qayoom.
“He would make Skype calls to his recruits from these laptops,” SSP Hussain said.
On 21 June 2010, two militants were killed in a gunfight in Krankshivan colony of Sopore. Media reported that one of the deceased was Qayoom Najar. As the word spread, Sopore protested. When the family members were called to the SOG camp for identification, they sighed in relief. It wasn’t him.
“Some media outlets persisted saying the body had been mutilated and hence Qayoom couldn’t be identified. But Qayoom made no announcement and let them enjoy their own propaganda,” said Qasim, Qayoom’s cousin.
That was probably for the first time Najar made it to the front pages of newspapers. Next time, when he again made it to the front pages, he became an anti-hero of sorts.
Najars have built a new house in Krankshivan. A tent has been erected in its courtyard, where people are coming in droves to offer condolences.
Inside, many speakers competed with each other to claim the “shaheed”, the martyr.
“He was our pride,” said one, quickly correcting himself, “I mean, he is our pride.”
“The shaheed,” said another, “has set an example of the highest order for all of us.”
Qayoom’s father, three brothers and maternal uncle listened quietly.
Inside the house, the family spoke about the controversy surrounding Qayoom’s name.
“Our son was declared an Indian agent by a particular leader whose men came today and claimed to have led his funeral prayers,” said Ghulam Mohiuddin Najar, his maternal uncle.
“It’s a lie. His brothers led his funeral prayers. They can’t disown him during his lifetime and own him up when he is dead.”
Before the summer of 2015, when both Hizb and Hurriyat leadership disowned Qayoom, Ghulam Mohiuddin advised him to give up militancy.
“He told me ‘how can I face the martyrs of Kashmir and my two cousins who laid their lives for the cause?’ What could you tell him after that?” Mohiuddin said.
Qayoom broke away from Hizb and floated his own outfit, Lashkar-e-Islam. Differences with the Hizb and Hurriyat had arisen because of his plan to kill 30 people whom he blamed for “harming the freedom movement.” He wanted to eliminate the “informers among the pro-freedom ranks.”
His ‘hit-list’ included a few lower-rung resistance leaders. The entire Muzaffarabad-based militant leadership and the Hurriyat disapproved of his methods, which they said were the handiwork of Indian agencies. They likened Lashkar-e-Islam to Al-Faran, a shadowy outfit that was behind the abduction and killing of foreign tourists in the 90s. Lashkar-e-Toiba warned Najar’s outfit of the fate of Ikwhan, a government sponsored militia.
In May 2015, Najar and his close associate Imtiyaz Kundoo started killing police personnel, Hurriyat activists and former militants. Sopore residents were in a dilemma. They effectively were forced to choose between a committed militant and the political and militant leadership. Qayoom’s men also carried out attacks on cellphone towers, in a bid to disrupt tele-intelligence gathering by government agencies.
“Qayoom wanted agents, collaborators and informers dead. He wanted to reshape the insurgency in Kashmir by eliminating the class of people he considered a hindrance to the Kashmir cause,” said his cousin.
Qayoom’s group, however, urged both Syed Ali Geelani as well as Syed Salahuddin to investigate the credentials of Lashkar-e-Islam. Addressing Geelani, the outfit urged him to probe the role of some of his organisation’s members in the killing of four militants: Islamabad’s Javaid Salafi, Palhallan’s Hilal Molvi, Pulwama’s Adil and Zainageer’s Rashid.
Calling itself “Mujahideen-e-Islam,” Najar’s outfit justified the tower strikes, saying several militants—Muzamil Amin Dar alias Urfi, Abdullah Shaheen and Abdullah Uni—had been killed and arrested because of mobile phone intercepts.
“The brothers who come from Pakistan for sacrificing themselves for us are unaware about this,” it said. “Laskhar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad outfits were most affected due to this nuisance.”
But the militant leadership was in no mood to relent. A Pakistani militant, Sajad Ahmad, who was arrested on 28 August 2015, reportedly told interrogators that he had been tasked with setting up a Lashkar-e-Toiba base in Sopore’s Doniwari area to counter Qayoom.
Perhaps mindful of such moves, Qayoom went to Pakistan in the autumn of 2015 to explain his position. But before his departure, in August, two burqa-clad women delivered his six-month-old son Abu Bakr to his parents along with a letter.
He asked for his parents’ forgiveness in that letter and requested them to raise his son in his absence.
“Living here has become difficult for me,” he wrote.
Qayoom’s sister has adopted Abu Bakr. His biological mother remains untraced. She is Qayoom’s former comrade Showkat Janwari’s sister. They had got married in 2010. It was Janwari—killed in 2007 during a gunfitht—who had introduced Qayoom to Abdullah Uni, a prominent Lashkar commander. The duo went on to alter the militancy in the town. If Uni was the frontline fighter, Najar was the secretive attacker.
A month before his killing near Zorawar Post in Lachiproa area of garrison region Uri, police came to the house of Shabir Najar, Qayoom’s elder brother.
“They said ‘Najar is back. Where is he?’ I told them who knows whether he has arrived or not or taken refuge somewhere in the upper reaches,” he said. Police have told the media that Qayoom’s plan was to revive militancy in southern Kashmir where Hizb lost several top commanders, including Yasin Itoo.
At Mamkak, Bashir Najar told Kashmir Newsline that he was surprised to see the beard on his brother’s face as Qayoom avoided all such markers that have come to define a militant, beard being the prominent among these.
He recalled that years ago, an SOG officer, Riyaz, had summoned him to the SOG camp.
“They were frustrated by fruitless search for Qayoom. The officer told me ‘your brother has been cut from a different cloth. He has married off 32 underprivileged girls in Sopore’. After I walked out of the camp I felt no fear. I was smiling,” said Bashir. He still has that smile on his face.